Making Gangsta Moves in the Innovation Economy

Creativity, persistence, capital and connections will drive the advancement of high-growth African American businesses

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The day I attended the conference, several start-ups, from an expansive social discovery site to a fitness app producer, shared concepts in the entrepreneurial pitch session. During a tech entrepreneurship panel, speakers offered war stories and advice: “How many of you are Angelist.com? I don’t mean Angie’s List,” Sutton says of the site that facilitates fundraising through a community of start-ups and investors. “We have to be there.”

In a session on Black capital, financiers like Ben Franklin’s Hicks revealed the following: “How do you get to the money? Get to know [a investor group’s] members. Find a champion.” Marc C. Mathis, executive director for Early Stage East, one of the nation’s largest venture capital conferences, added that his Club Pitch events rarely attract African Americans. “You have to get to spaces that will create capital resources…there must be outreach to the vast majority,” he says. “At my event, I can count fewer Black entrepreneurs than the fingers on one hand.”

Fraser echoed a similar theme related to the importance of building personal, operational and strategic relationships to achieve goals. “Strength is not in the wolf…it’s in the pack,” he asserted, citing that African Americans spend 9% of their time networking to garner roughly 50 contacts versus their White counterparts who employ 19% of their time and develop about 125 connections.

But Holifield, a former football player and economic development expert who has led, among other things, industrial innovation and tech workforce development efforts in Ohio, says African Americans can orchestrate high-impact business turnarounds and convert urban centers into “innovation ecosystems” if they act “more like more trim tabs,” the device that enables rudders to “turn big ships.”

He identified assets such as entrepreneurial talent; capital; customers; educational institutions; commercial research; philanthropic institutions; and professional services in his presentation. Next, he stressed entrepreneurs must “comprehend the speed of the game, ” understanding that today’s business strategy can’t be approached like the civil rights struggle since they now operate in a flatter, hyper-connected global environment driven by an increased democratization of information. “Everyone will not be entitled to innovate,” he said. “In fact, this is the most meritocratic economic period ever.”

Another principle calls for connection of vital components—innovation councils, university and corporate research capabilities, capital sources like angel networks and VCs, incubators and advance manufacturing operations—through what he calls “innovation asset stewardship mapping.” And his execution process is driven by A.O.L. (not to be confused with the Internet site) in which “you aggregate key wealth and resources; organize them into actionable forms; and leverage them to achieve the desired impact.”

Holifield approach requires flexible, enduring trim tabbers to effectively move rudders, ensuring the ecosystem remains sustainable but adaptable. “In this model, we encourage entrepreneurial churn. We must discard the old notion of economic stability. In [that type of environment] the lowest rates of business failures resulted in the lowest rate of business start-ups,” he says. “Entrepreneurs should not be risk averse but risk astute. That will create greater energy, vitality and creative destruction. You will have losers but you will also create new customers.”

Of course, I abbreviated Holifiled’s convention-bending model. The end game, however, is development of high-growth businesses to ignite true wealth formation and produce the multiplier effect of job creation and urban resurrection. In fact, Hajj Flemings, who co-hosted a Motor City screening with the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program that brought 212 students and parents to the UAW/GM Building, seems to embrace this philosophy when he says: “Detroit was the Silicon Valley of its day with the automotive industry and Motown… My plan is to be part of a Detroit comeback…”

The merger of creativity and persistence. Now, that’s gangsta.

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